What will President Obama do about the Northern Spotted Owl? He — or his opponent — will be the fifth president to deal with the threatened bird and the old-growth forests in which it lives. Many people assumed that the owl wars had ended when the Clinton administration's Northwest Forest Plan took effect in 1994. But then, many people assumed that European wars had ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1918.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush tried to keep from disrupting the flow of National Forest timber to protect the owl. They got hammered in federal court. The government listed the owl as threatened in 1990. The next year, U.S. District Judge William Dwyer enjoined all federal timber sales west of the Cascade crest.
During the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton promised that he'd bring all parties together to find a solution to the owl problem. In 1993, he convened a Portland conference at which he, Vice President Al Gore, and four cabinet secretaries heard from scientists, loggers, mill owners, and timber town officials. His administration subsequently issued a Northwest Forest Plan designed to protect not only owls but also hundreds of other critters that need or at least spend time in old growth forests. Both the industry and environmentalists attacked the plan, but the courts gave it a green light.
Ever since Clinton left office, George W. Bush's administration has tried to undercut protection for the owl and its habitat. Memos that Earthjustice obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the forest products industry wanted the Bush administration to modify environmental rules for Northwest forests. Reducing habitat protection for the owl and marbled murrelet — which was listed in 1992 — were keys. The industry also wanted the Bush administration to eliminate old growth protection on BLM land in Oregon and northern California; dump the Forest Plan's Aquatic Strategy, designed to protect salmon; and get rid of its requirement to "survey and manage" for the survival of fungi, invertebrates, and other species protected by the Forest Plan. The administration has tried to oblige. Courts have slapped down its efforts to scrap the aquatic strategy and "survey and manage," and to de-list the murrelet.
The goal is to cut 1.1 billion board feet a year in the Northwest's federal forests, roughly three times the going rate. The administration has argued that when the Northwest Forest Plan was adopted, Clinton "promised" the forest products industry a billion board feet of timber a year. "We're trying to go back to those original promises," Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey told The Seattle Times. "We're not ready to walk away from the communities in the Northwest to which promises were made." Ray explained five years ago that "I went back and reviewed the record to make sure I wasn't misreading" Clinton's comments. He read transcripts and listened to tapes and found that Clinton had not been misquoted. "What I've been ordered to do," Rey said, "is redeem a commitment, an unambiguous and unequivocal commitment, by the Clinton administration."
As its latest step toward redemption, the Bush administration in May issued a final recovery plan for the Northern Spotted Owl. Some environmentalists assume it's dead on arrival. Don't be too sure.
Two years ago, the administration put together a team to write a draft recovery plan. The government had started a plan back in 1992 but never finished, assuming that the Northwest Forest Plan would do the trick. Then, early on, the Bush administration settled — rather than fighting — industry lawsuits by promising, among other things, to conduct a status review of the spotted owl. Many environmentalists expected the status review to "prove" that the owl was doing just fine. Instead, the reviewers said that owl populations were plummeting faster than anyone had anticipated, that the invasive barred owl posed a significant threat, and that disease and climate change further jeopardized the owl's survival.
The draft recovery plan might have built on the status review, tailoring owl protection to an uncertain world. It didn't. Politics played a part from the beginning. An oversight committee of Agriculture and Interior department officials second-guessed the recovery team; the draft claimed that barred owls posed more of a threat than habitat loss. It included two options — the first time a draft plan had ever done that. Option two would have scrapped owl reserves with fixed boundaries so that forest managers could protect habitat as they saw fit. It also called for experimentally shotgunning up to 576 barred owls.
Two environmentalists on the recovery team, Washington Audubon biologist Tim Cullinan and Dominick DellaSalla of the Ashland, Ore.-based National Center for Conservation Science & Policy, went to Washington, D.C., to talk with congressional staffers about what the administration had done. As Cullinan recalls, the press had just run stories about political interference with other Endangered Species Act decisions, and they found a lot of receptive ears. Interested members of Congress applied enough political pressure to secure scientific reviews of the draft plan. The scientists ripped it to shreds. There was no way the administration could take its draft into court and expect to win. It went back to the drawing board.
The result is this new plan. It would protect 1.1 million fewer acres of old growth than the Northwest Forest Plan. East of the Cascade crest, it envisions no permanent reserves, but a fluid system in which new reserves would be designated when old ones were wiped out by fire or disease. Unlike the draft, it recognizes past and present habitat loss as the owl's greatest threat and calls for "controlling" the barred owl in ways to be determined later.
To reduce the impact of fire and disease, it also calls for increased thinning. This worries people. Reducing fire danger has long served as a pretext for letting loggers into forests that would otherwise be off-limits. The recovery plan's prescription for thinning "opens things up for discretion which could too easily be abused," says Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild (formerly the Oregon Natural Resources Council). "The flexibility is risky since the agencies are still rewarded for logging, and if the fuel reduction treatments are required to earn a profit they will end up undercutting objectives for both owl habitat and fire hazard reduction."
Such doubts notwithstanding, the final recovery plan is better than the draft. "Anything would be better than that so-called Option 2," Cullinan says. But is it good enough?
Arguably, in the face of plunging population numbers and looming threats from climate change, disease, and barred owls, one should set aside more habitat, just to leave some margin for error. DellaSalla notes that the plan may not protect any forest younger than 160 years. Mature forest that falls below that line not only provides valuable habitat, he explains; it's the cohort from which the next generation of true old growth will develop. Besides, trying to protect a declining species by preserving less habitat "goes against all the science." Cullinan argues that the planners are trying to extrapolate present conditions into the future — when we know that the climate, among other things, will be different. That seems to argue for caution.
Instead, the recovery plan may lay the groundwork for decisions that would make the owls' odds even worse. The government hasn't asked for an outside scientific review, but the groups that shredded the draft will produce one anyway. If the weight of scientific opinion goes heavily against the final plan, somebody's gonna sue.
At this point, potential litigants are waiting for the next shoe to drop. Actually, there are three shoes: Boyles points to an imminent designation of critical habitat, to the ongoing revision of individual forest plans (the plan for the Okanogan National Forest comes up first), and — most of all — to the Bureau of Land Management's revision of plans for the 2.6 million acres it manages in western Oregon. The BLM has already issued a draft environmental impact statement for its revised plans, which are based largely on the now-abandoned Option 2. The process is known as the Western Oregon Plan Revision, or WOPR, which you pronounce "whopper." Boyles says WOPR is "the big train heading down the track."
A summary from the draft environmental impact statement explains that the BLM prepared the document because "(1) the BLM plan evaluations found that the BLM has not been achieving the timber harvest levels directed by the existing plans, (2) there is an opportunity to coordinate the BLM management plans with new recovery plans and re-designations of critical habitat currently under development. ..." In other words, BLM wants to cut more timber, and it thinks the new recovery plan will let it.
Some observers agree. "We estimate that the [recovery plan] will lead to a reduction of about 20 percent to 30 percent of the habitat reserves overlapping with the BLM's WOPR," DellaSalla says. "This means BLM could get a free pass ... to increase old growth logging by 700 percent. ... According to the BLM's own figures, this could result in destruction of up to 830 owl sites and over 600 marbled murrelet sites in the next decade."
A recovery plan "weak on habitat protections could lead to an equally weak owl critical habitat designation that opens the door for BLM's extreme logging plans," DellaSalla continues. "BLM had a very unusual level of influence in this recovery plan, as documented in testimony I sent to the House Natural Resources Committee [at the end of May]. This is based on thousands of [Freedom of Information Act] documents that I reviewed, plus my personal experience of being on the ... recovery team for nearly 18 months. Bottom line: The [recovery plan] was rigged to accommodate BLM's WOPR."
The Northwest Forest Plan remains in place, Boyles explains, and because it protects so many critters besides the owl, it's likely to stay. But the plan gives those critters a reasonable chance of survival only if they have protected habitat in large areas managed by the BLM. If WOPR goes through in its current form, Boyles says, "it pretty much cuts the legs off the Northwest Forest Plan."
Litigation seems inevitable. That means the final decisions will be made by the next administration. For now, the Bush administration is "just trying to accomplish its political agenda before they turn the lights out," DellaSalla says. The big question, he says, is "how much damage they'll be able to do before they head out the door."